As we move through the weekly Torah portions in the story of Exodus (Shemot), I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. It is a key word in the biblical text in many instances. The powerful consequences of the ability/decision to listen or not listen are found throughout the story. The Egyptian midwives, charged with murdering Hebrew male babies, choose not to listen to Pharoah, giving us the first recorded instance of civil disobedience in all of human history. Moses has a profound encounter with G-d at the burning bush, during which he is convinced, commanded, and persuaded to listen to the divine, leading to the eventual dramatic exodus from Egypt. Pharoah chooses not to listen to Aaron and Moses, and his nation suffers terribly. Later, during the revelation at Sinai, we are told that the Israelites enter into holy covenant with G-d with the words, “We will do and we will listen (Na’aseh V’Nishmah).”
This is not accidental – according to our tradition, the Torah doesn’t waste words, and the theme of listening is clearly an important one in this story, which is the prequel to the birth of the nation of Israel. What can we learn about listening from these pages?
Listening to others, when we choose to do it, and making them feel heard, is one of the most profoundly powerful acts we can do in life. It seems simple on the surface, but in fact requires a great deal of patience, and the ability to empathize with others, which doesn’t come easily to everyone. Taking a few moments to truly listen to someone, particularly someone who often isn’t heard, can transform their life and yours. Teaching young children to take turns in conversation can be challenging; I often find myself telling my two kids to stop speaking to me at the same time. I explain to them I want to really listen to each of them, and I can’t do that when they both speak at once. It is a skill to be able to stop your brain from framing your own response – the words you want to say when it is your turn – and just listen and affirm someone else’s perspective. It is even more difficult if their words challenge your own dearly held positions.
Listening is even more powerful when you learn to tune in to your own hidden messages. These can be subtly destructive, self-nullifying thoughts, and once you learn to hear them, you can shift your attention to other internal messages that emphasize your strength, and your inherent self-worth.
Finally, some people feel able to listen to G-d. In the central prayer of every daily service in Judaism, we recite the Shema. It is the cornerstone of Jewish prayer, and it means, “Listen.” Maybe this is good advice for a group that stereotypically speaks a lot, but our tradition is very clear that the power of listening is among the most important things humans can learn to do.
So this Shabbat I encourage you to spend some time listening: to your family members, to the world around you, or to yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.